Across the country, including right here in Connecticut, the decriminalization of minor marijuana possession is well underway. To date, 14 states and the District of Columbia have passed legislation removing the threat of criminal penalties for, at least, low-level marijuana possession with some going as far fully legalizing recreational use.
Decriminalization is not the same as legalization, of course, and in most of the 14 states possessing marijuana is still against the law. Rather than prosecuting it as a crime, however, possession is treated as a civil infraction, similar to a speeding ticket. This creates a dilemma of sorts for many law enforcement officers. In neighboring Massachusetts, that dilemma was resolved last month when the commonwealth’s Supreme Judicial Court ruled that traffic stops are no longer permitted solely on the suspicion of marijuana use or possession.
In 2011 and 2014, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) issued unanimous rulings that prohibited law enforcement officers from conducting warrantless searches based upon the smell of burnt or unburnt marijuana on or around a suspect. The court found that allowing such searches would be inconsistent with the 2008 law that decriminalized possession of up to one ounce of marijuana in the commonwealth. Thus, according to the SJC, the smell of marijuana alone does not permit law enforcement to assume that more than one ounce is present, which would be the point at which police involvement would be considered appropriate under the decriminalization law.
The SJC’s 5-2 ruling in Commonwealth v. Rodriguez remained consistent with its earlier decisions. Despite claims from police officials that officers can pull over vehicles for civil infractions like speeding, the court found that there was no inherent connection between highway safety and citations for marijuana possession. In the wake of the decision, police may not pull over a motorist simply on the suspicion of marijuana possession. Justice Margot Botsford wrote in the majority opinion that to allow law enforcement to make such stops “does not serve the objectives” of the 2008 law change. ‘[It] does not refocus police efforts on pursuing more serious crime,” she continued, which was one of the major goals of the decriminalization efforts from the beginning.
Applicable in Connecticut?
While the laws regarding marijuana possession in Connecticut are different as far as quantity than those in Massachusetts, the principle remains the same. Possessing of up to one half-ounce of marijuana is a civil infraction in Connecticut, punishable by a $150 fine for a first offense, $200 for a second, and $500 for a subsequent offense. To date, however, there have been no serious legal challenges yet to the manner in the police are enforcing the applicable laws. If and when such a challenge does arise, Connecticut courts will likely find a degree of precedent set by the SJC’s rulings in the last few years.
If you are facing charges related to marijuana possession or if you believe your rights against unreasonable search and seizure have been compromised, contact an experienced Hartford criminal defense attorney. At the Woolf Law Firm, LLC, we are committed to helping you protect your future and will remain at your side every step of the way. Call [[phone1]] to schedule your confidential consultation today.